Clear choices facing Iran
The change of occupants in the White House following the 2016 US presidential elections has affected the whole world, but for Iran specifically it has truly been significant. Today, mass demonstrations on the streets of major Iranian cities coincide with escalating US sanctions.
Last week, sanctions announced by President Donald Trump against Iran took effect. They include banning governments and companies from using the dollar in transactions with Iran, stopping all bank transfers in that currency, forbidding any business in the Iranian rial, banning banks from lending money to Iran, and forbidding US banks from dealing with their Iranian counterparts.
The sanctions also ban trading in various materials and goods with Iran, including iron, carpets and food items. And within three months, the sanctions will include petroleum and petrochemical products too.
So the scene in Washington has changed dramatically since the very long US-Iranian honeymoon during Barack Obama’s presidency. It is obvious that the change that came with Trump’s election was to a large extent ideological. It is not what we have been accustomed to in a superpower, where one rarely finds radical ideological differences between its two establishment parties.
Obama’s election was revolutionary in many ways in US political life. And within eight years, the first African-American president practically apologized to several Third World regimes for the policies of the US establishment and what he might regard as its imperialism. However, all this was upended with Trump’s election. Now, Washington does not apologize to anybody.
There is no special treatment for Western allies, and no preferential consideration or good neighborly relations with Canada and Mexico, the only countries with which the US shares land borders. So if one describes Obama’s election as a revolution, Trump’s surely deserves to be thought of as a counterrevolution that has bulldozed all the assumptions, equations and concessions of the previous eight years.
Turning the page of animosity with Iran’s mullahs, and diligently working to develop relations with Tehran, were the cornerstone of Obama’s vision for the Middle East. This vision was basically translated since 2011 by Washington’s encouragement of regime change targeting pro-US leaders (in the context of the Arab Spring), and by signing a nuclear deal that temporarily delays Iran from becoming a nuclear power, but gives it the green light to dominate the region without the need for a nuclear arsenal.
Writing about Iran’s political scene and Washington’s change of position on the country under the Trump presidency, my Iranian colleague Amir Taheri recently raised the issue of “to resist or not to resist?”
Burning portraits of Iran’s supreme leader, and demonstrating against him and his authority, are not ordinary developments.
Eyad Abu Shakra
Taheri wrote: “In Tehran’s political circles these days that is the question. The prospect of fresh sanctions to be imposed by the United States and its allies has helped intensify the debate which has marked Iranian politics since the mullahs seized power in 1979.”
During the last few decades we have become familiar with this political rhetoric, some of which sounds contradictory to those who do not know much about the complexity of Iran’s socio-political culture. It is a culture that accommodates the extraordinary coexistence, if not marriage, between Shiite political Islam and Aryan nationalism. It is the latter that President Hassan Rouhani boasted, in a message to Trump, goes back around 7,000 years.
On one side, electoral democracy whose seasons Tehran uses to impress the world and distract its masses, and on the other the doctrine of “vilayet-e-faqih,” which is above elections. On one side, the regime’s various councils and government institutions, and on the other the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a political-financial militia that has tentacles everywhere and in every sector.
On one side, the revolution with its slogans and popular purity, and on the other the sway of the bazaar with its rich turbaned and non-turbaned tycoons. On one side, those we are told are reformists and pragmatists who understand and talk to the world, and on the other those who are known to be conservatives, hard-liners and militarists who boast about threatening Iran’s neighbors, destroying their cities and taking over the politics of the countries they dominate.
This is the Iran that is protesting today. It is the Iran of young men and women who, like in every country, desire to be part of the world, and to enjoy its wealth rather than have it spent by dogmatic extremists on fatal, destructive, costly adventures and expansionist foreign projects, either under the banner of exporting the revolution or the pretext of defending holy shrines. It is the Iran that possesses one of the world’s greatest human, economic, cultural and artistic treasures.
Iran is the world’s 17th-largest country with the 18th-largest population, exceeding 82 million. It has 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 15 percent of its natural gas reserves. And despite Iran’s bad governance and its rulers’ adventurism, it is the world’s seventh-largest oil producer and second-largest exporter among members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Given the above, Iranian society seems to have had enough. Its youth is angry as it feels deep national and cultural alienation. Burning portraits of Iran’s supreme leader, and demonstrating against him and his authority, are not ordinary developments.
One must also not make light of the bitterness deeply felt by millions, which is expected to worsen, as US sanctions bite, given that they are intended to remind Iranians that their country’s resources must be used to improve their lives rather than on military adventures overseas.
The suppression of the Green Revolution, and the imposition of restrictions on all forms of protest and opposition, are well known to Iranians. They, especially young men and women, are also aware that the IRGC’s organizations are largely responsible for suppressing their freedom and ambitions, protecting financial and political corruption, and directing foreign military adventures.
Sanctions may increase the people’s suffering for a while, but they are expected to encourage those with a vested interest in change and prompt them to make a stand. Iran’s great resources belong to its people, not to its generals and their projects. So if the suffering is clear, so are the choices.
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat.